A Review of Thin Air by Ann Cleeves

Today, 8 June 2017, I posted this review on GoodReads.com.
Thin Air (Shetland Island, #6)Thin Air by Ann Cleeves

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I very much like this series by Ann Cleeves. They are gently written even if they are dealing with murder. They pack a lot of information, back story and background, into easy-to-read and elegant sentences. For me, they are a perfect balance of intrigue and daily life, new characters and familiar ones, facts and secrets, red herrings and clues.

This time we meet a group of young professionals who met one another at university in Durham, most of whom are English, and there is a story of a haunting. I didn’t work out the culprit, nor the motive, but somehow I still felt that I could have. It felt fairly written to me.

In the middle of all this, a sense of hope. Oh, and an insight into the Shetland Islands and contemporary life there, this time on Unst, the most Northerly of the Islands and two ferry rides, 57 miles and two and a half hours from Lerwick.

I’d definitely recommend the series but I would suggest starting from the beginning, Raven Black.

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Common Murder by Val McDermid

I posted this review on GoodReads.com

Common Murder (Lindsay Gordon, #2)Common Murder by Val McDermid

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I very much enjoyed reading this book. Published in 1989 it is set in Brownlow Common, a fictional substitute for Greenham Common, where women set up a peace camp to protest about the siting of American cruise missiles on British soil. As such, it captured a sense of the late nineteen-eighties and the political turmoil of that time in the UK.

“Write what you know,” they always say, and in this, her second novel, Val McDermid does. She keeps a good pace going as her journalist protagonist, Lindsay Gordon, investigates what is happening to her friend and, in the days before mobile phones and internet access, dictates copy on public phones. She weaves a believable story, dropping necessary clues throughout so that what Lindsay finds out and what she does both have foundations in the book. I particularly approved of the ending where the events of the story have a lasting effect on Lindsay, rather than there being a simple re-set. (Cryptic, much? Trying to avoid the spoilers an’ all.)

And, yet, I did feel a little dissatisfied after finishing. I didn’t notice while reading the book which might provide the moral of “don’t analyse too much” but this is me and I can’t help it. I have struggled to explain it. The best I can say is that the psychology of the murder victim and the events make sense but I didn’t really feel them. Lindsay observes them and so do we, in fact, we observe Lindsay observing and analysing them. They didn’t quite come alive for me.

However, what happens to her personally does come alive for me, which is why reading the book was enjoyable and I do want to know what happens to her next. It is interesting watching Ms McDermid’s skill grow, as well.

In conclusion, I recommend it as a good read especially if you remember the 1980s.

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Review of “Family Shadows” by John Nixon (not the man who interrogated Saddam Hussein!)

Family ShadowsFamily Shadows by John Nixon

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I found “Family Shadows” when looking for a genealogical crime novel after I ran out of my favourite such series. It was a good idea for a story and, given that I find it very difficult to come up with good plots, I appreciated that. However, it was very poorly executed.

I myself had feedback on one of my 100-word pieces that said, “It didn’t read like a story; it was like reading a news report.” Now, of course, I don’t agree about my story but I do see how I can use that criticism about Family Shadows! It is as if John Nixon had this idea for a narrative and he’s basically told us what happened, rather than revealing it to us through what his protagonists do and say.

He did open the novel with a scene set in the past, but he then failed to follow through on that narrative device and dramatized none of the historical scenes. Even the dénouement is told as reported speech. It was as if he just wanted to get the story out of the way.

It is a first novel so I thought I’d go back and check out another first novel – Nathan Dylan Goodwin’s “Hiding the Past”. (Hence, my flurry of activity on his books in GoodReads.com.) What I read there really increased my admiration for Mr Goodwin and showed me what could be done. Now, if only I can get an idea for a plot, I can try and emulate him and ‘show not tell’, as the instruction goes. It did however harden my resolve on “Family Secrets”. Having decided what the story was he wanted to tell, Mr Nixon would have done well to go back and think about an intriguing and thrilling way to tell it.

I also think he might then have wondered if he had quite the right characters in place to tell the story. This is quite a brutal story at heart. I didn’t think the psychology of the main characters was true to what they were being asked to experience or given what they were supposed to have done.

I did finish the book. It wasn’t that hard to read and I quite liked the main protagonist, Fiona, who was researching her step daughters’ family histories. I also liked Madeleine Porter who had a small role but is the protagonist of his next novels and I’ll give one of those a chance.

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My Review of Closed Casket, the new Hercule Poirot Mystery by Sophie Hannah

I posted this review on GoodReads.com.

Closed Casket: The New Hercule Poirot MysteryClosed Casket: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery by Sophie Hannah

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a great whodunit. It is a complete page turner. Indeed it quickly becomes a “page re-reader” as you reach certain points where a revelation sends you back to re-read the pages with the knowledge you now have. In the grand tradition of golden age detective novels, the possibilities and impossibilities posed by the strange group of characters, gathered in an isolated mansion, boggle the mind as you try to work out who could have committed murder and why. Even psychology itself is under attack during the novel.

I’ve thought quite carefully about what else I can say without being accused of spoilers and, really, there’s not much! The blurb on the book itself talks of a house party at the Irish mansion of Lady Athelinda Playford, described as one of the world’s most beloved children’s authors, and of her announcement that she is cutting off her two children without a penny . . . and leaving her vast fortune to an invalid with weeks to live. Everything springs from that and you find that out in the first few pages of the book.

The book was commissioned by Agatha Christie Limited to extend the adventures of Hercule Poirot and follows the success of The Monogram Murders, also written by Sophie Hannah. In that book, she introduced a new foil for Poirot, Detective Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard. He reappears here, one of the guests at the house party, to narrate the tale.
The only thing I found slightly curious is that Poirot himself is absent for pages of the book, his enquiries visible only in his reports to Catchpole. However, that was less frustrating than the fact that I wanted Catchpool to ask questions like, what happened six years ago, and he never even acknowledged my request!

The setting is in the classic well-to-do late 1920s but I’ll close with a comment from one of the characters that has some resonance today: “After all, without the occasional solid fact, anyone could ask one to believe anything, and then no story is better than any other.”

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Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

EileenEileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Oh, Eileen, I really didn’t like you.

I may have lost the habit of reading literary books. This book was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, more details here. I decided to read it so I kept on plugging away but I found it hard work and not particularly rewarding. For me, that is.

It is a book told by an old woman about the young woman she used to be, her internal psychology and emotion. It is less about extraordinary events and more about the day-to-day misery of her life. She thinks it is miserable and I certainly found it miserable too.

It is told as a stream of conscience. Memories of her childhood and how her life has unfolded so far are mixed in with details of how she reacts to what is happening to her today. Little happens and what does is really quite weird. She’s “wired weird”, she comments at one point. This is a nice piece of language and there may be more that passed me by.

Throughout the book there are hints of things that have happened or are going to happen: a violent end for her mother, “what she did” to her father and what happened “when Rebecca arrived”. Rebecca’s arrival certainly precipitates a change in Eileen. The events of Christmas Eve are where there is the simplest narrative but I can’t say more because of spoilers.

There is some dialogue, mostly in the normal interchanges with her co-workers – and with Rebecca, when she arrives. With her father, he says something and then she thinks about it for a huge paragraph then she might say something. Less dialogue, more random exchange of words.

The inaction takes place in the last week before she leaves her childhood home. After an introduction to 1964, each long chapter covers a single day until “The End”. This structure corrals the free-flowing wander through her life, not in any consecutive order but just as the memories occur to her. I am still not entirely sure how the memories interrelated but then I probably didn’t care enough about Eileen to piece it together.

In summary, I really didn’t like it but you might. Some of the professional critics thought it was wow! I hope you enjoy it if you try it.

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Lock the Door by Jane Holland

I’ve posted a review on GoodReads.com.

Lock the DoorLock the Door by Jane Holland

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The book starts as a case of a missing baby and I thought it had interesting parallels with the Madeleine McCann case where a British child disappeared from her bedroom in a Portuguese holiday complex although her parents checked on her regularly. I wondered if it might even shed some insight or light on that case. I suppose it is still possible that it does but I’m not convinced of the believability of the conclusion.

I thought the first half, which is the immediate aftermath and police investigation, was very good, making me want to keep reading, although I wanted to shake Meghan or rescue her, I wasn’t sure which. I’d prefer a bit more about the police procedure but that is mostly about my liking of police procedurals!

However, the second half went off the rails a bit for me. It turns in to more of a domestic story, the consequences of infidelity on married couples with one wronged party reacting quite passively while another goes off the extreme, irrational, deep end. I didn’t understand the motivation of the protagonists, perhaps because the key players in the denouement were not sufficiently rounded to me. Everything is described through Meghan’s eyes and she seems self-absorbed, reasonably so given what is happening to her, but that leaves us with limited understanding of key players. I did wonder if beefing up the police procedural structure would have been a better way to tell the story. You could really have expected a change of gear in the police investigation which instead seemed to disappear from view.

It was well written and I did feel for the protagonist and was quite shocked by what happened to her. I just wish the second half had turned out differently.

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My Secret Sister

by Helen Edwards and Jenny Lee Smith

It may not be entirely obvious from the blurb but this is a true story, told in the first person by Jenny and Helen, alternating through the book, assisted by ghost writer, Jacquie Buttriss. As such it is more moving than fiction would be because, as you read, your heart goes out to these little girls and what they experienced.

It is written in a quite matter of fact tone and always from the perspective of the girls, supplemented occasionally by a comment from the women they have become. It mostly travels at quite a pace from about 1950 to the present day, describing childhoods spent in the North-East of England. It is a social history told from the perspective of two people living it, demonstrating the opportunities available to some and how others could be left behind. At the end, it is a joyful celebration of two twins (as the blurb gives away) finding each other.

The book never steps out of the first-person frame of reference so there is no analysis or discussion of what is happening to the girls or of what the people around them were thinking. I cannot believe that the neglect and abuse of one of the girls could continue to be allowed. I am shocked that no-one, even in the family, intervened at any point. I suspect something would be done today because teachers have more responsibilities and there were some signs that they might have investigated. However, on the other hand, there are still cases today where children are harmed and the beefed-up system fails them, so who knows?

The dynamic driving the story for me was finding out how the two women meet and that took a long time coming. However, the stories of their lives, the parallels, similarities and differences, kept me intrigued. I think the only times I baulked were where I might have yearned for some of that analysis and discussion as to how this could have happened. Apart from that, these seem to be two extraordinary lives. Helen lived in South Africa and Australia and America and Jenny became a professional golfer. These seem amazing trajectories for the times.

This is a domestic social history. Even though Jenny Lee Smith was a well-known professional golfer and there is some discussion about how she became that, who she trained with and her career, there is not sufficient detail of the tour nor of the technical aspects to satisfy a golfing fan. It is a book that will appeal to people who are interested in the family histories, social history of the second half of the twentieth century in England and human interest stories. If that is you, I heartily recommend it to you.

It’s a good read and it is an ultimately heart-warming story.
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